Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
In his director’s notes, King Lear director Risher Reddick writes, “If Lear is not a king, who is he? If Pittsburgh is not a steel town, what is it?”
Quantum Theatre explores both Pittsburgh’s and Lear’s identity in its latest production, which is staged at the Carrie Blast Furnace in Swissvale. Here, Carrie, as it’s affectionately known, becomes another character in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, with sounds of whistles and steam mingling with the Bard’s script.
Although the setting is unconventional, the plot remains the same: King Lear (played here by Bricolage Production Company founder and artistic director Jeffrey Carpenter) divides his kingdom between his three daughters: Regan (Dana Hardy), Goneril (Lissa Brennan) and Cordelia (Catherine Gowl), giving the largest plot to the one who loves him the most. After Cordelia is unable to reciprocate Regan and Goneril’s display of love, Lear banishes her in a fit of rage. From there, the story of loss and “family values gone awry,” as Quantum Theatre’s website says, only gets more tragic and twisted, where it ends unhappily.
This version of Lear is adapted by University of Pittsburgh professor James Kincaid and scholar Julian Markels. Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos first encountered this version of the script two years ago at a reading at Bricolage Production Company. Reddick directed the reading, and Carpenter and Tami Dixon, Bricolage Production Company’s principal creative and co-founder, read for some of the characters.
After the reading, Boos wanted to put on a full production with Carpenter revising his role as Lear, with a historic interaction leading to the production’s final setting.
“I was hanging out with the Battle of Homestead Foundation people and someone said, ‘you should do a show at Carrie Furnace,’ and I had already wanted to make a full production of King Lear so those things came together beautifully,” she says.
According to Boos, Pittsburgh’s own history parallels Lear’s character arc.
“The setting really represents another era of Pittsburgh where we had a lot of the trappings of success and it was stripped away from us, and we had to grapple with what we are on a deeper level. And that’s what King Lear is about,” she says.
Act I of Quantum’s King Lear begins underneath the Carrie Deer sculpture, created by the Industrial Arts Co-Op— an arts group who commemorates the industrial steel heritage of Pittsburgh with public sculpture—in the late 1990s.
You will not notice the deer looming overhead depending on where you sit during the production. The steel mill itself becomes the focus, with actors weaving in and out of its skeleton and acting on its various levels. The main action takes place on a round, concrete slab that gives Stonehenge vibes.
Although Carrie Blast Furnace hasn’t produced steel in years, Steve Shapiro’s sound design seems to never end, constantly pumping out sounds of the industrial industry, like the mill never stopped. The city itself also contributes to the sound design, with the occasional bird chirp and police siren adding to the atmosphere.
“[Steve Shapiro’s] job was to find all of the sounds of the furnace that he could find and that would be our main palette for the show,” Reddick says.
- Todd Brown’s lighting design casts a hazy glow on the actors as the sun sets, and it’s fitting that Lear’s descent into madness happens as light shifts to darkness. The storm scene is one of the most impressive moments in Act I, where you can see lightning crashes reflected off of the walls of the furnace.
After Act I ends, the audience travels on an illuminated path from the Carrie Deer to the Iron Garden for Act II. Here “native plants and concrete relics evoke ancient Britain,” according to the Quantum site.
Walking from the Deer to a different area of the site reminded me of my Girl Scout days, where we often took night hikes, clutching Coleman flashlights as we walked on dirt trails in Central Pennsylvania. Walking to the Act II site was slightly disorienting, but I’ve never felt more alive hearing the crunch of gravel below my feet while pointing a small flashlight provided by Quantum at large, rusted iron structures and graffiti-covered concrete walls.
The Iron Garden is a more intimate space, where you rub shoulders with your neighbor and get a small view of the city through the trees. An up-close experience into tragedy of King Lear, Act II heightens the emotion experience in Act I, with harsher lights and an immersive war scene, where the actors scrape the corrugated sheet metal surrounding the clearing.
According to Reddick, the setting again parallels Lear’s experience.
“We go from the grandeur of the Carrie Furnace to a much more stripped away version of the production,” he says.
For this production, check the weather and dress accordingly, since you’ll be sitting outside for more than two hours. Quantum also has shuttles for those who have trouble walking, and provides assistive listening devices for those who are hard of hearing. For those who aren’t a fan of bugs, bring bug spray for Act II especially.
With the grandeur of Carrie Blast Furnace and a wild, adventurous experience, Reddick says this version of King Lear is a “once in a lifetime production.”
“Carrie Furnace is a spectacular place and I feel so lucky to get to do this here,” he says. “I never could have imagined it on this scale when we did the reading.”